The Different Types of Silver Used in Jewelry Making: Sterling Silver, Fine Silver and More
We often talk about silver jewelry as if it’s all the same.
But it’s not.
Silver jewelry pieces can vary in quality and durability depending on what type of silver they’re made of. This means not all silver jewelry is created equally, with sterling silver regarded as the best option by silver jewelry manufacturers.
These silver grades vary in quality, durability, and cost, and knowing the difference can make a big difference to your reputation and bottom line.
Below, we’ll take a look at the various silver grades available on the market today and the benefits and downsides of each.
Silver is rarely used in its pure form for jewelry. This is because it’s a relatively soft metal that’s composed of 99.9% precious silver and just 0.1% oxygen, chlorine, and other trace elements.
To make it more suitable for jewelry, manufacturers add other metals to pure silver to boost its durability. This turns the silver into an alloy and can enhance various qualities such a shininess and scratch resistance.
Silver is then graded based on its silver to other metal ratio.
Some silver grades are better than others, though, with some manufacturers opting for lesser alloys as a cost-saving measure. Others — such as ELF925 — only use the very highest quality sterling silver, keeping costs down through streamlined manufacturing processes instead.
Otherwise known as fine silver, pure silver features a .999 hallmark. This speaks to its 99.9% silver purity and is renowned for its unique, natural sheen and luster. Unlike some alloys, pure silver will not tarnish and leave marks on wearers. It is, however, remarkably soft and is likely to dent and scratch during use.
That said, there is a demand for fine silver within the handmade jewelry market, where bespoke, one-of-a-kind pieces are sought after.
Sterling silver is considered the de facto alloy when it comes to silver jewelry making.
It is typically composed of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, with nickel used by some manufacturers. Copper is added to silver to make it harder so that jewelry can be worn without fear of damage.
Sterling silver also features a much brighter, shinier finish than pure silver. This shiny luster is what most of us associate with silver, as sterling silver is what most US and European jewelry stores stock.
As it contains copper, however, sterling silver will naturally tarnish over time. This dark material is easily removed however and leaves no permanent mark.
Some UK-made silver jewelry may also feature a .958 hallmark. This is commonly known as Britannia silver or British silver and was first introduced in 1697 by the UK parliament. It was originally developed to prevent the melting down of silver coinage but has since found use as tableware and jewelry.
British silver is not commonly used by jewelry manufacturers as it is not as durable as sterling silver, lacks the same sheen, and costs more.
Argentium silver is a collective term for silver alloys that do not tarnish. They all contain at least 92.5% silver, though this ranges as high as 96%. It looks almost the same as sterling silver and has been around since 1998 but is not widely used.
The secret ingredient in Argentium silver is germanium. This is added to silver alongside copper and reduces how much the silver piece will tarnish. It’s a popular choice for wristwatches and other pieces that are worn for extended periods, like bracelets.
Argentium silver is expensive, however. Not only does it usually contain more silver content, but the manufacturing process itself adds considerable expense as it is patented.
Silver-plated jewelry is often called costume jewelry and is used purely for aesthetical reasons. The jewelry itself is made from a cheaper metal such as brass or copper and then coated with a very thin layer of sterling silver.
This layer is added with various techniques with electroplating being the most commonly used. This involves submerging the base metal and silver into an electrolyte solution and running a current through both. Through an electrochemical process, positively charged silver molecules then attach themselves to the negatively charged jewelry piece.
This layer is extremely thin — typically 1 to 10 microns thick and allows silver-plated jewelry to remain very cheap to produce.
While silver-plated jewelry can look every bit as glamorous as solid sterling silver pieces, the layer wears off quite easily and is most suited for short-term or infrequent use.
Nickel silver is not actually silver, despite its name. It is, in fact, an alloy made from copper and nickel, which is sometimes substituted by zinc. It is also known as Alpaca silver or German silver.
It was created to create an inexpensive alternative to sterling silver. While it contains no silver, its name refers to its appearance, which is very similar to .925 silver. It is another popular choice for costume jewelry, where aesthetics trumps durability and preciousness.
Resellers should be aware that many people suffer from nickel allergies which can cause a rash and skin irritation. It won’t necessarily feature any kind of hallmark as it is not a graded silver.
A fairly uncommon silver grade is coin silver which was used most in the United States. It features a lower silver-to-copper ratio of 90% and 10%, as it was traditionally made from melted-down coinage. Jewelry made from coin silver, therefore, bears a .900 hallmark.
Coin silver jewelry is now extremely rare and not used by manufacturers on a large scale. It is most commonly found as antiques or used by bespoke jewelry creators.
With its unique blend of durability, cost-effectiveness, and luster, sterling silver is considered the best grade of silver. Customers recognize sterling silver as a trusted grade that will last a lifetime and beyond.
Jewelry resellers, creators, and retailers should, therefore, look to sterling silver pieces first to deliver what customers want.
Here at ELF925 jewelry, we’re doing just that while also keeping profitability and sustainability in balance.